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Cookstown pupils’ balloon project a stratospheric success

A picture of sunrise on Sunday March 23, 2014 off the southern coast of Ireland, taken from a weather balloon launched by Cookstown High School pupils.

A picture of sunrise on Sunday March 23, 2014 off the southern coast of Ireland, taken from a weather balloon launched by Cookstown High School pupils.

 

Some remarkable panoramas taken miles above the Earth have been captured by teenage school pupils from Tyrone.

GCSE pupils fitted out a weather balloon with a camera and programmed it to broadcast live images of its travels as it drifted up through the stratosphere.

The pictures included the gently-curved outline of the Earth at dawn, the cloudy whorls of a storm near the Isle of Man, and images of what are believed to be Venus and Mars – seen as mere dots in distant space.

It was a joint project by the pupils of Cookstown High School and nearby Holy Trinity College, about 14 of whom in total were involved in the project.

ICT teacher Robert Johnston from Cookstown High led the project, designed to promote practical understanding of science, maths and art.

Though he has heard of students elsewhere launching balloons, he said this project was unique for a school in Northern Ireland – if not beyond – because it fed back a non-stop stream of live pictures en route, visible on a website set up specially for the project: www.hipi.org.uk.

“Before Christmas we had a tethered balloon launch,” said Mr Johnston.

“We let it get above Cookstown, to about 300m (984ft).

“If I was to do it again I’d make sure there was no wind, and we had a more picturesque location. I had some lovely photographs of Cookstown bacon factory, and not much else.”

When they launched it for real at about 9.45am last Saturday, the equipment on board consisted of a webcam, radio transponder and a GPS chip – all controlled by a tiny, £24 computer called a Raspberry Pi and wrapped in a lunchbox-sized polystyrene container for insulation.

It flew for roughly 24 hours, reaching a height of 120,000ft (more than 22 miles) at its peak and enduring temperatures of -35C.

All the while, it beamed back a new image every six minutes until it burst the following morning.

Mr Johnston said: “I was hoping people would take a ‘window seat’ on our flight. Over our flight, we had 1,200 unique visitors to our webpage.”

He added that a colleague had joked: “I’m glad it burst – otherwise I would have got nothing done!”

The contraption later ditched in the north Atlantic.

Mr Johnston added that pupils at the school, aged around 13, recently designed an application for mobile phones which offered a guide to the mountain bike trails of nearby Davagh Forest – a device which was later bought by the council for £1,500.

“When you place technology in the hands of young people, it’s amazing what they can produce and the ideas they can come up with,” he said.

 

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